Uxmal – The Quieter, Hipper Alternative To Chichen Itza


Chichén Itza may get the lions share of visitors to the Yucatan but 200km south west of Chchén Itza you will find Uxmal. In ancient Mayan language Oxmal means “three times built”.  Like Chichén Itza, Uxmal has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it’s architecture most resembles the dominant style of Mayan cities of the Late Classic period.

Getting To Uxmal

Unfortunately, Uxmal is a little too far from the busy Mayan Riveria to do in a day so you may have to shop around for someone willing to offer a day tour. Chichén Itza is so popular because it is only a 2.5-3 hour drive from Cancun. Uxmal is a further 2-3 hours depending on the route you take. To do Uxmal in a day would require a ridiculously early start and a return travel time of around 10-12 hours.

uxmal entrance

The Main Entrance to Uxmal.

Most tours start from a base in the beautiful colonial town of Merida 62km north of the site. If you want to get out and explore the real Yucatan rather than the plastic facade of the Riveira Maya then I urge you to spend a night in the wonderful town of Merida.

The site is very easy to find from Merida, just off the main 261 highway on the way to Campeche. It should take little more than an hour to arrive at the site from Merida.

Why Bother With Uxmal When Chichén Itza Is Closer?

Two main reasons. The crowds. Or rather the lack of them compared to Chichén Itza, and the architecture. Even before the city was restored it was probably one of the best preserved of all ancient Mayan Cities. Chichén Itza was fully enveloped by the jungle when it was discovered.

ball court uxmal

The ball court was used to play a ritualistic ball game similar to modern day racketball.

Tree roots had crumbled much of the once magnificent facades of the temples. In Uxmal you can still get a glimpse of the original rendering to help you picture what this site would have looked like in its heyday around 850AD-925AD.

A Quick History Of Uxmal

nunnery quadrangle archway uxmal

Looking out from the Nunnery Quadrangle towards the Governor’s Palace one the Ball Court.

Along with its ally, Chichén Itza, Uxmal was the main centre for the northern Maya area in the Late Classic Period. There is no record of new construction after 1100AD and the conquest of the Toltec civilisation. There are records of Uxmal being inhabited until roughly 1550AD but, as the Spanish Conquistadors didn’t create a settlement nearby the site was quickly abandoned.

The Temples Of Uxmal

Smaller in Area than Chichén Itza, Uxmal still astounds with its 3 main areas.

Temple Of The Magician

The 100 meter tall pyramid near the entrance is as striking as its counterpart in Chichén Itza. Unlike most other Pyramids, the Adivino to give it its proper name, has oval sides. It is the only known Mayan pyramid to have an elliptical shape rather than rectilinear. It immediately grabs your attention. From the moment you lay eyes on the temple you know your are in for a special day. Uxmal may be of the same period as Chichén Itza but it is completely different at the same time. Not all ruins are created equal. From 2009, sadly, you are no longer permitted to climb the structure.

temple of the magician uxmal, adivino uxmal

One of the most striking temples of all Mayan sites, the Adivino is the tallest structure in Uxmal.

The Nunnery Quadrangle

A term given to this section by the Spanish after they invaded, the Nunnery Quadrangle was actually a governmental palace. It has some of the best carved building facades in the Yucatan. A tour guide will be able to explain the math behind the buildings and how they all equate together. The precision of it all will blow your mind.

nunnery quadrangle uxmal

Intricate carvings on the buildings of the Nunnery Quadrangle are some of the best preserved of all ancient Mayan sites.

Out to the left hand side of the Quadrangle, under an impressive arch and down some steep steps on the way to the Governors Palace is a ball court. While not as big as the one in Chichén Itza, it still stirs the mind with almost gladiatorial combat that would have been hosted within its vertical walls.

The Governor’s Palace

Finally, atop a hill with commanding views over the entire site is the huge Governor’s Palace. At over 1,200m² the Palace has the longest facades in Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica.

The platform it sits on is entirely hand built and stands around 8 meters high. Think about the amount of labour that would have taken, especially without today’s modern building techniques.

governors palace uxmal

A panorama of the Governor’s palace. Ben and Matt standing at the front corner help you understand the enormous size of the building and the platform it sits on.

Walking around the Palace You can see it also has some intricate carvings on its upper levels. At the back you can make out an overgrown mound not too far away. This is another temple that has yet to be restored. It is one of several laying about the site in varying degrees of degradation.

Like most sites, restoration is an expensive and time consuming business and there simply aren’t the funds currently to undertake such an effort. This is why visitors, and the money they pay in entrance fees are so important to maintaining these sites for future generations.

governors palace, adivino, uxmal

Looking down the longest facade in Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica with the Palace Of The Magician in the background.

You could argue that by visiting sites like Uxmal we are destroying them at the same time, but without the money we bring, they wouldn’t have the funds to be restored in the first place, slowly turning to dust in their jungle covered tombs.

Is Uxmal out of the way for the majority of visitors to the Yucatan? Absolutely but don’t be fooled into thinking it is a clone of Chichén Itza. Both sites deserve equal attention. Doing Uxmal though will require you to stray a little from the “safe” confines of the Riveria Maya. In doing so you may realise that Mexico isn’t a drug ravaged second class state that it is made out to be in the mainstream media.

uxmal Mexico, adivino uxmal

Looking out over Uxmal from the Governor’s Palace atop the man made 8 meter high platform.

It is a multicultural destination full of varied landscapes and interesting people. Parts of Mexico do have problems with cartels but they are mainly concentrated in the north. The Yucatan is a very safe area for everyone. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your all inclusive resort hotel to discover the real Mexico.

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